by Elisa Raffa (Queen City News/FOX Charlotte) and Ayurella Horn-Muller (Climate Central)
Williams Hughes Jr. had just bought a Tesla when he realized there were no charging ports for electric cars near his Historic West End home.
“One of the first things that my wife and I looked at was the map of where electric vehicle charging stations are located in Charlotte,” Hughes said. “And if you look at that map, it’s identical to the disparities of wealth and not wealth in Charlotte.”
The worst health effects of tailpipe pollution from gasoline-powered vehicles are disproportionately borne by Black, brown and Indigenous communities in the U.S. With federal investment in electric vehicles accelerating, and economic momentum building across North Carolina, the placement of charging infrastructure in polluted cities like Charlotte reflects income and race-based gaps in electric vehicle adoption.
The disparity persists in the Historic West End, an eight-mile area of formerly redlined neighborhoods. It has a legacy of industrial zoning, attracting factories, waste sites, and truck stops. Three highways were rerouted there in the late twentieth century; exposing the predominantly Black residents to harmful tailpipe pollution.
Today, 310 public electric vehicle charging stations are scattered across the city of Charlotte. About a third of these are owned by the city; the bulk of the rest are owned by Tesla and ChargePoint, which operates publicly available chargers nationwide. Most are clustered in Uptown and South End neighborhoods. Only one can be found in the West End.
When he bought his electric car in 2019, Hughes felt it was his duty to advocate for an expansion of charging infrastructure around his Historic West End neighborhood. “[I’m a] taxpayer that lives in the neighborhood, lives in the community, cares about the community,” he said.
For three years, Hughes has been meeting with city of Charlotte officials and galvanizing fellow residents to join him in his fight for environmental justice.
“The EV movement is not a fluke, it’s not something that’s just gonna go away,” Hughes said. “Are we going to have the infrastructure in these communities, in our community, that we need to facilitate transportation in 2022, 23, and going forward?”
For some of Charlotte’s oldest Black neighborhoods, a lack of electric vehicle charging infrastructure is another symbolic obstacle in an ongoing battle for racial equity. As gas-guzzling vehicles disproportionately pollute those neighborhoods, nonprofits and community members are advocating for electrifying transport as a path to safer air.
Following decades of redlining beginning in the 1930s, highway infrastructure was deployed across the U.S. to divide segregated communities and deepen racial inequality through to the 1980s. Within just 20 years, three were constructed in Charlotte: the I-77 loop, the Northwest Expressway, now known as I-277, and the North-South Expressway. The freeways forced Black residents from their homes and businesses, destroying parks and schools in two of the city’s oldest Black communities.
Dr. Michelle Zuniga, an assistant professor in community and urban planning at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, says interstate development was concentrated near communities of color because they were restricted in their resistance. Black residents had no legal recourse against such plans until 1965, when Congress passed the Voting Rights Act.
“It fostered a lot of spaces of isolation, divided communities,” said Zuniga. She says the ways urban planning disrupted Black, brown and Indigenous neighborhoods effectively “shut out these communities to resources.”
A 1962 Charlotte Observer news article covered residential outcry against the Northwest Expressway, which the city proposed would run right through McCrorey Heights, a predominantly Black neighborhood. Construction plans required a row of homes to be torn down. When the expressway went up in 1966, it displaced more than 240 families.
These roadways would eventually split the wider community into two, leaving behind a West Side and a South End. The division didn’t just geographically separate lower-income Black residents from their wealthier, white counterparts, it segregated resources like grocery stores and green spaces.
It even segregated clean air.
‘It’s more than just a charging station’
For those stuck living close to freeways, the proximity to fossil-fuel burning engines produces health dangers and exacerbates existing illness.
“Now we’re dealing with the negative implications of the transportation system that has brought about all of these issues related to [an] increase in greenhouse gas emissions,” said Zuniga.
Modeling-based research out of Princeton University indicated that North Carolina could avoid 4,603 deaths by 2050 — the tenth highest in the nation — if the state electrifies much of its transportation system by 2030. It could also save an estimated $9 million in healthcare costs associated with the health consequences of tailpipe emissions.
A 2022 North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality report found that transportation is now the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the state, producing a little more than a third of the state’s annual emissions, similar to its share of national emissions.
The combustion of gas-based fuels results in the release of many types of pollutants — from particulate matter, black carbon, and nitrogen oxides, to ground-level ozone — that threaten environmental and human health.
Depending on the type of air pollution and the severity of the concentration, effects can range from minor daily inconveniences to asthma attacks and early death.
“Anything from coughing or throat irritation and chest pain, to more severe such as heart attacks, strokes, asthma, bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, hypertension, a variety of types of cancer,” said public health scientist and policy advisor Dr. Sutyajeet Soneja. “Studies have also suggested impairing brain development in children, preterm birth and of course, premature deaths.”
Exposure to pollution also amplifies the chance that people with underlying health conditions will end up in the hospital. Those most impacted belong to frontline populations — low-income Black, brown and Indigenous communities particularly vulnerable to climate change.
“We talk about all these health impacts but it’s also the more tangible aspects, such as missed workdays. Being sick and not being able to go to work has major secondary impacts in terms of feeding your family, for example,” Soneja said.
The American Lung Association’s 2022 ‘State of the Air’ report concluded Charlotte has the second-worst ozone pollution in the Southeast. A 2021 study led by University of Virginia atmospheric chemist Dr. Sally Pusede found that in Charlotte, Black, brown and Indigenous residents living in low-income neighborhoods breathe air containing 16% more toxic nitrogen dioxide than white residents living in high-income neighborhoods.
“The key messages are that people of color in Charlotte, especially Black and African Americans, live in neighborhoods that have higher NO2 air pollution,” said Pusede.
In 2017, the nonprofit Clean AIRE NC launched a program collaborating with neighborhood leaders to collect data on air quality in the West End. After sharing the results in a report to Mecklenburg County, a federal air monitor was installed at a local Baptist church.
“You have highways that cut through the community due to transportation, infrastructure decisions, and you also have a quarry that is centrally located in the community. And all of these things have created a host of air quality issues,” said Daisha Williams, Clean AIRE NC’s environmental justice manager.
Identifying high degrees of polluted air is one thing; how it compounds with supplemental stressors is another.
“Even if you have an air monitor at Myers Park that’s reading 56, and an air monitor at the Historic West End that is reading 56, the impacts are going to be greater in the Historic West End,” Williams said.
“This also is the part of the county that has the least access to fresh and healthy food and the worst health outcomes in the county,” she said. “And you have the highway that cuts the community, which you don’t see in other places in Charlotte.”
In February, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper joined Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles to celebrate the installation of the West End’s first electric vehicle charging station at The Ritz at Washington Heights.
Connected to a street light pole, the first-of-its-kind UNC-designed station provides free curbside vehicle charging, which doesn’t require off-street parking, lowering costs by reducing the amount of electrical infrastructure required. It joins more than 1,440 chargers across the state.
With less infrastructure required, community leaders like William Hughes are excited about the opportunity to grow local charging capacity faster.
“When we started first talking about these chargers and installing these in this corridor, I got a lot of blank faces, like people were looking at me like I was crazy like I was speaking a different language,” Hughes said. “And so I think we’re proving the market is here.”
In an email, Charlotte’s Chief Sustainability and Resiliency Officer Sarah Hazel said the primary focus of their charging infrastructure investment and locations has been to charge the city’s fleet.
“The City is partnering with the non-profit Forth and local affordable housing developers to stand up an electric vehicle car-share pilot project to reduce the barriers to electric vehicle adoption facing underserved communities, particularly residents of affordable housing,” Hazel wrote.
Forth is behind electric vehicle rideshare programs for underserved communities in cities including St. Louis and Los Angeles. In 2022, Charlotte was selected to join its national affordable mobility program. “Charlotte is also exploring federal grant opportunities that can support public charging infrastructure with a focus on equity.”
To Clean AIRE NC’s Daisha Williams, the West End station represents more than clean energy-momentum.
“It’s more than just a charging station,” Williams said. “As we move towards the solutions and a clean energy economy, we can’t keep keeping the people that have been literally impacted the most by it behind.”
Electric vehicles and planetary health
Without aggressive cuts to greenhouse gas emissions, storms, floods, droughts, and other disasters will continue to intensify — along with their impacts on economies and communities.
With warming temperatures increasing rainfall rates and boosting tropical storms, flash flooding, and mudslides caused by the remnants of Tropical Storm Fred killed six people in August and damaged nearly 700 homes across North Carolina.
The University of North Carolina at Charlotte atmosphere and climate scientist Dr. Brian Magi sees electric vehicles as a vital part of reducing emissions and easing the impacts of climate change.
“Electric vehicles have an immediate benefit on air quality,” Magi said. “Because if we think of most urban landscapes, and certainly Charlotte, the big city of Charlotte, here, where the big contributor to air pollution is mobile sources, which is a code word for cars, trucks, planes, trains, and all the other things that move and that are burning largely fossil fuels.”
While electric vehicles emit far less pollution than internal combustion engine cars, the electric vehicle manufacturing process is more emissions-intensive than the production process for combustion engines. “There’s a lot of growth that still has to happen,” Magi said.
He thinks reducing these emissions should be prioritized by state and local policymakers. “There are policies in place at the state level, and at the city level, and even within institutions like UNC Charlotte, that will, I think, set into motion, an injection of electric vehicles into our cityscape and into the landscape that is North Carolina.”
The economic and environmental benefits of electrification are what the U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm is focused on.
The federal government is investing heavily in expanding charging infrastructure; in February, the Biden administration pledged to invest nearly $5 billion into a national charging network. North Carolina is expected to receive $109 million to put toward charging expansion. According to Granholm, this is the country’s number one goal as they ramp up electric vehicle momentum.
Granholm says the collective work being done to reach President Biden’s goal of 100% carbon pollution-free electricity by 2035 is ‘very exciting.’
“While we’re working on the electric vehicle side, we’re also working on deploying clean energy onto the electricity grid,” Granholm said. “And we want to build out an electricity grid that allows us to site and to add solar and wind and zero-carbon technologies like hydrogen, like hydropower.”
Beyond installing chargers along federal highways, the federal government aims to make sure that charging ports are placed in areas that don’t already have them. “We want to put them in lower-income areas so that people of modest means can feel like they can buy an electric vehicle and charge it up,” Granholm said.
This is also a crucial tenet of the governor’s sweeping plan to get 1.25 million electric vehicles on state roads by 2030, and for electric vehicles to make up 50% of new auto sales by the end of the decade. By the end of 2021, there were just 25,000 fully electric vehicles registered on North Carolina roadways.
The renewed push to scale electric cars comes as a manufacturing boom is spreading across the state.
In Randolph County, a lithium plant is already in the works, after Toyota shared the news in December about the billion-dollar battery manufacturing site. By 2025, it’s expected to start production and lead to the creation of 1,750 jobs.
Electric vehicle company Arrival will build a battery module assembly plant in Charlotte’s West Side, making this its third facility in the city, creating 150 jobs. And VinFast recently went public with their plans to build an electric vehicle production facility outside of Raleigh, which they expect will create 7,500 jobs by 2027.
Still, barriers to adoption abound. For one, North Carolina limits most electric vehicle automakers from selling directly to consumers, requiring them to work instead through local auto dealers. Another barrier can be the $140 additional electric vehicle driver fee, which the state charges to make up for lost fuel tax.
According to U.S. Department of Energy data, in North Carolina, an EV driver’s lifetime fuel costs are around $7,513.84 less than costs for drivers of fossil-fueled vehicles. Although electric cars are generally far cheaper to power than those that burn gas, higher sticker prices and misperceptions about long-term costs are another adoption roadblock.
“It’s all a pocketbook question, right? We want to make sure people understand it is so much cheaper to maintain and to operate an electric vehicle,” Granholm said.
‘Transportation equals freedom’
Not everybody wants to own a car — and many cannot afford one. In Charlotte, 12% of households don’t have their own vehicle, part of a population of more than 10 million carless Americans. The number rises to 29% among lower-income populations.
Advocates like Sustain Charlotte’s Meg Fencil want to see even more investment from officials in cleaning the air for residents who can’t afford a car. Fixing gaps in the city’s public transportation network is what the nonprofit’s director of engagement and impact wants to see prioritized by policymakers. “Transportation equals freedom,” Fencil said.
Improving public transportation is another public health strategy because it can reduce dependency on polluting cars. And with electric buses becoming more common sights on American roads, some will soon be operating in Charlotte.
Fencil says the transit system isn’t meeting the needs of those who rely upon it — especially for those living on Charlotte’s West Side. Improvements could be made in the frequency and efficiency of the city’s current bus routes, so people can get to their jobs, opportunities, and medical appointments on time, she said.
“We know that commute time is the single strongest predictor of whether a family escapes poverty,” Fencil said.
The city has pledged that part of its $13.5 billion-dollar transportation plan will be invested in improving bus system issues. The Charlotte Area Transit System, or CATS, has also said they want to increase the number of bus services on routes, and blamed reliability issues on a ‘shortage of bus drivers.’
City officials are focusing on electrifying transport. Last month, CATS announced a pilot program to roll out 18 battery-electric buses within the next 18 months. By 2030, they plan to transition to 100% carbon-free sources for the city fleet and facilities.
Fencil sees the program as a sign of progress. Now when those electric buses wind their way through Charlotte’s neighborhoods, they will no longer be polluting the air residents breathe.
“Not only is public transit a way for more people to be able to get to different places that we need to go every day, but if those electric vehicles are not emitting tailpipe emissions, then it’s much better for our health overall, as a community,” she said.
Climate Central and Queen City News/FOX Charlotte collaborated to investigate the rollout of electric vehicles and charging stations in Charlotte.